I don’t have a lot to say today in response to the fatal shooting at a Quebec mosque last night, or to all the evil policies coming out of the office of He Who Must Not Be Named in Washington. But somehow this Billy Bragg song (based on some words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke) seemed appropriate. This song can be found on Billy’s brilliant album ‘Tooth and Nail‘.
In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as if the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.
But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flown before.
Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world; the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us – things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.
The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’; in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life, and pronounces a blessing on them. Likely there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fit into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.
The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people with good long term marriages and people whose marriages are full of pain, or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?
There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.
In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.
Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes – the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers – she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Isaiah, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of a friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission he did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.
The kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful grief, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.
The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.
The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realize that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world and in their own lives. People like this are often laughed at and excluded. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.
The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look – there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.
The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.
The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the Son of God who came to bring peace between God and people, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.
The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group – the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.
So this is the kingdom of God – a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.
So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.
The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.
It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are – but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness – or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness – or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ – and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.
The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, get baptized into union with him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.
(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).
I’m pleased to announce that Meadowvale is now available in the Kobo store (link here) (At the moment it does not appear to be available in the Chapters/Indigo store).
I’m pleased to announce that my novel ‘Meadowvale’, which has been featured in various versions on this blog over the past few years, is now available to purchase on Kindle.
I have been working on and off on this book for several years, so this is of course a dream come true for me.
The link to the book in the Canadian Amazon store is here.
Here it is at Amazon.com.
Here it is at Amazon.co.uk.
Please note that you can still read the first six chapters of Meadowvale for free on this blog. If you want to read more, you know what to do!
A famous tennis star of a previous generation was once asked the secret of his success. He replied “I only do one thing, and I don’t let anything distract me from it”.
I have no doubt that it was this sense of focus that took him to the top of his profession and made him the great tennis player that he was. But I can’t help wondering what it did to the rest of his life. How did his family and friends feel about being relegated to second place? What about his values, his health, and all the other areas of his life? It’s good to have a sense of focus, but surely it’s even better to focus on the right things.
I wonder what your focus is? What’s the main thing in your life? What’s the thing you’re prepared to make sacrifices for, the thing you wake up in the night thinking about? I once heard a person giving a talk about ‘Ideals’. He said something that’s stayed with me over the years: “Do you wonder what your personal ideal is? Ask yourself where your money, your thoughts, and your spare time go. That’s your ideal”.
Here’s another way of looking at it. If you could ask God for one thing, with the sure and certain knowledge that you would get it, what would it would be? Health for you and your family members? A million dollars? Long life?
Our psalm for today was Psalm 27. In this psalm the writer tells us what he asked of the Lord. Listen to these words from verse 4:
One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
To the people of Israel, the temple, or ‘house of the Lord’, was the place above all where the Lord was present. If you wanted to be absolutely sure that you would meet God, the temple was the place to go. So we could translate the psalmist’s prayer as a request that he would always live in God’s presence. We might paraphrase it like this:
One thing I asked of you, Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in your presence
all the days of my life,
to see your beauty,
and to know that I can always call on you for guidance.
I want to suggest to you this morning that this should be our greatest desire as Christians too – to seek God’s presence, and to submit to his guidance.
But why? Why should this be our greatest desire? What’s in it for us? And how would we go about achieving it?” Let’s think about each of these questions in turn. First, why should this be our greatest desire?
A few years ago in South America a small aircraft carrying a young American missionary couple was shot down by a fighter plane. It was a communication error, and the pilot of the plane and the young couple paid for the error with their lives. This is the kind of world we live in; our lives are shot through with grief and trouble. And that’s one of the main reasons for us to seek the presence of God. In verse 5 the psalmist says ‘For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble’.
But we have to be careful about this. It seems clear to me as I read Psalm 27 that the writer expected God to rescue him from the day of trouble. I think it was some sort of military trouble; perhaps he was facing an enemy army and the odds were stacked against him. Look at verses 5-6:
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
It seems pretty clear to me that the psalmist had prayed to God to rescue him from his enemies, and his prayer had been answered exactly as he had asked: he had won the battle, and his head had been lifted up above his enemies all around him. And isn’t it wonderful when that kind of thing happens? You’re facing major surgery and you ask God to bring you through it, and he does! You’re facing a family difficulty, and you ask God to help you sort it out, and pretty soon everyone’s happy again! You’re facing a financial crisis – maybe you’re afraid that you’ll lose your job – and the crisis is averted, you keep your job, and everything’s okay.
Those are wonderful times, and we thank God for them. But of course, we’re also painfully aware that God doesn’t always seem to give the answer we desire, and often we don’t know why that is. In the New Testament we read that Paul prayed for sick people to be healed, and many times they were! And yet he himself had some sort of illness – he calls it ‘his thorn in the flesh’ – and even though he prayed three times to be delivered from it, he was not delivered. ‘My grace is sufficient for you’, God said to him, ‘for power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9a). And Paul goes on to say,
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9b-10).
So yes – God will hide us in his shelter in the day of trouble. Sometimes that ‘hiding’ will take the form of rescuing us from the trouble. Sometimes it will take the form of giving us the courage and strength we need to go through the trouble in the knowledge that God is by our side. We don’t always feel this in an obvious way; sometimes what happens is that after the trouble has passed we look back and think, “Wow, I never thought I’d make it through that! I guess Someone must have been looking out for me!”
I wonder what your ‘Day of Trouble’ is this morning? A debilitating disease that has unexpectedly invaded your life? The loss of a loved one? Disappointments and worries about your children? Loneliness? The fear of death?
Grief and difficulty, you see, aren’t interruptions of normal life; they are normal life. And we are not adequate to deal with these difficulties by ourselves. Only with God at the centre of our lives can we face these storms. And this is one of the main reasons why we seek God’s presence: without God, we haven’t got a chance.
“Well then”, we go on to ask, “What do we hope to gain from this? What’s in it for me?” On the face of it this seems like an irreverent question. It sounds as if we’re evaluating God as consumers rather than approaching him as lovers! And yet the writer of Psalm 27 isn’t shy about mentioning the benefits of living in God’s presence. Let me point out two of them for you.
The first is salvation. In verse 1 we read ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?’ To the Old Testament people, ‘salvation’ meant primarily being saved from your enemies. One reason why they were so afraid when they lost battles was that they thought it was a sign that God was angry with them! But for us Christians, salvation has a different focus: it means being saved from our greatest enemies: the power of sin and evil, especially the sin and evil in our own hearts.
A couple of weeks ago Marci and I were reading an excellent book by a man named Francis Spufford; it’s called Unapologetic, and the subtitle is Why, despite everything, Christianity still makes surprising emotional sense. The first chapter is about sin, but he makes the point that the word ‘sin’ has lost a lot of its meaning for us today: we associate it primarily with sex and chocolate! So he suggested a substitute phrase to make clear what we’re talking about. His substitute phrase includes a swear word that I’m not going to use in this pulpit, but I’m sure you can guess what it is if I call it ‘the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up!’ – or, in his shorthand, the ‘HPtFTu’ – that’s as close to the swear word as I’m going to go!
We all recognize this, don’t we? We have this uncanny ability to do the stupid thing, the selfish thing, the hurtful thing, over and over again! Most of us can look back on the path of our lives and see all the people we’ve managed to hurt along the way, and all the situations we’ve made worse, not better. This is what we need help with! This is what we need ‘salvation’ from.
A Christian man whose family life was in a shambles once went away for a weekend retreat at which he discovered the presence of God in a new way, and committed his life to Jesus. A few weeks after he returned from the retreat his son came into his room one evening and asked, “Dad, what happened to you? You’re completely different!” The man said “Well, I realized that I wasn’t making a very good job of my life, and someone told me that if I gave my life to Jesus he would help me to make a better job of it, so I did”. After a moment’s silence the boy said “Do you think I could give my life to Jesus too?” That’s the kind of thing we mean when we use the word ‘salvation’.
The second benefit the psalmist mentions is guidance in living. In verse 11 we read ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path’. We seek God, in other words, because we want to know the best way to live our lives. There are so many different theories and philosophies of life, but surely it’s wise to assume that God the Creator knows the best ones! And so seeking his face involves seeking his will and submitting to his guidance. This is not a sad and solemn thing. Rather, it means learning the way of life which will bring the greatest peace and contentment in our Creator’s world.
And really, why wouldn’t we want to do that? One of the phrases we’ve learned from the business world is “Your current system is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re getting!” Ouch! That hurts! Of course, it hides the fact that in many cases we haven’t intentionally designed our current system; we’ve arrived at it by accident, by a series of passive choices that we didn’t really think about. But now it’s our system, and it’s producing the results we’re getting.
So how’s our life system working? How’s our plan for daily living working for us? Is it producing positive, life-giving results, or is it only contributing to our Human Propensity to Mess Things Up? If we’re not satisfied with this, surely it makes sense to go to God and ask for wisdom to learn a better way. ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path’ (v.11). And this is exactly what we’re promised in Scripture. Psalm 119 says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (v.105); in other words, God’s word will illuminate our life’s journey, guiding us about the direction we should take. And we Christians hear that word of God most clearly in Jesus. He says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
So we’ve seen the benefits of seeking God’s presence. There is the sheer joy of knowing and being connected with the Creator of the universe. Then there is the experience of salvation from sin, of having someone to turn to in times of trouble, and of being guided and taught the best way to live.
One last question: How do we achieve this desire of ours? Well, we can say for sure that it isn’t a matter of techniques or theories; it’s about our love for our Creator God. And again, as Christians we know that seeking God involves seeking Jesus. As Jesus himself said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
At the end of Psalm 27 the writer says ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord’. This is the heart of the matter. Be prepared to wait patiently until you get what you desire above all else. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t be satisfied with cheap thrills and quick fixes. Go to God in prayer day by day; tell him that you want him above all else, that you’re willing to do anything he asks and go to any length if only you can have this blessing. That is the kind of focus that will delight the heart of God, and in time you will begin to notice his answer to that prayer. When that begins to happen, you won’t need me to give you seven proven techniques for getting closer to God. More and more, you will find yourself experiencing God’s presence in your own life, and all the blessings the psalmist speaks about here will be your blessings too.
Does that sound like one of those unrealistic easy answers? It isn’t meant to sound like that. Last week I mentioned Rowan Williams’ statement that prayer is a bit like birdwatching. Birdwatching requires masses of patience. Sometimes you sit for hours and see nothing; all you’re experiencing is getting wet from all the rain! A lot of people give up early, and so they don’t see anything interesting. I have to confess that I’ve often been one of those people; I’m not a patient birdwatcher. But those who are patient tell me that, if you’re in the right place and if you wait long enough, sooner or later something interesting will happen. There will be the hint of a song or the flash of colour, and suddenly you’ll find yourself looking at something beautiful.
Prayer is like that too. We may go for long periods of time without much sense of God’s presence. We may only be praying out of obedience, nothing more; we’re not experiencing much else. We may feel like birdwatchers, sitting in the rain seeing nothing!
Well, carry on sitting, and carry on waiting! The psalmist says again, ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord’ (v.14). The one who quits early will not see the flash of colour – they won’t catch that hint of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s the one who continues to pray, continues to wait quietly in God’s presence, and keeps on doing that, day after day, year after year – that’s the person who will find the sense of God’s presence growing on them, slowly, almost imperceptibly, until one day they wake up and realize that it’s become the permanent backdrop of their lives.
May that be true for all of us.
Let me close by repeating the paraphrase of verse 4 that I offered you a few minutes ago. Let’s make this our prayer:
One thing I ask of you, Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in your presence
all the days of my life,
to see your beauty,
and to know that I can always call on you for guidance.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.
There have been a lot of people on Facebook recently sharing albums that shaped them when they were teenagers, which is quite interesting. I thought I’d also like to share my current ‘Top Twenty’ – in alphabetical order by artist surname, with the proviso that I will not let myself pick more than one album per artist. These albums are by the artists I currently play the most and consider essential to my musical well-being and inspiration.
- Nicola Benedetti: ‘Vaughan Williams/Taverner’
- Billy Bragg: ‘Tooth and Nail’
- Anne Briggs: ‘A Collection’
- Matthew Byrne: ‘Hearts and Heroes’
- Martin Carthy: ‘Martin Carthy’
- Bruce Cockburn: ‘Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws’
- Maria Dunn: ‘Gathering’
- James Findlay, Bella Hardy, Brian Peters & Lucy Ward: ‘The Liberty to Choose: A Selection of Songs from the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs’
- Genticorum: ‘La Bibournoise’
- Nic Jones: ‘Penguin Eggs’
- Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Philip Ledger: ‘Orlando Gibbons: Tudor Church Music’
- Mark Knopfler: ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’
- London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis: ‘Handel’s Messiah’
- Maddy Prior: ‘Seven for Old England’
- Jean Ritchie & Doc Watson: ‘At Folk City’
- Red Tail Ring: ‘Mountain Shout’
- Stan Rogers: ‘Northwest Passage’
- Kate Rusby: ‘Ten’
- Martin Simpson: ‘Kind Letters’
- Sting: ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’
Anyone else like to share their top twenty?
Because one should regularly return to the most magisterial versions of the great folk songs, I hereby post this morning Paul Brady’s classic 1977 take on ‘Arthur McBride’. Beautifully sung of course, and Paul’s flat picking here is extraordinary.
My two favourite moments in this video are (1) the delicious word ‘spalpeen’, and (2) the mischievous grin on Paul’s face at 5.54 when he sings the line ‘We obligingly asked if they wanted recruits’!
There’s an interesting discussion of the song at Mudcat Café here.
Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour miniseries ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ will be forty years old this year. If you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend it; it’s probably the best movie about the life of Jesus that’s ever been produced.
Not that everything about it is entirely faithful to the gospel accounts; like many film makers, Zeffirelli couldn’t resist the temptation to put his own mark on the story. One change I found particularly intriguing was that Zeffirelli’s Jesus hardly ever invites people to “follow me”. Instead, he looks at them with a penetrating gaze, repeats their name, and says, “Stay with us”. “Andrew – Philip – stay with us”, he says, and the other disciples grin at them and welcome them into their little group.
That’s not what the gospel writers said, of course, and yet I can’t help thinking it’s not a bad way of expressing what Jesus’ invitation was all about. The problem is, it’s a very counter-cultural way of looking at discipleship today. These days we’re not very good at ‘staying’ anywhere or ‘staying focused’ on anything. We’re not very good at working at our computers without clicking on a hyperlink every five minutes, or stopping regularly to check our email. We’re not good at committing ourselves long term to a small group at church; we’re so busy, we’ve got so many other things going on in our lives, we can give Jesus four weeks max, and then we’ll have to move on to somewhere else.
But Christian discipleship is a long-term commitment; you can’t get the benefits of it in a short time. There’s no such thing as an instant prayer life; there’s no such thing as thirty-day transformation. Eugene Peterson has a phrase he likes to use: ‘A long obedience in the same direction’. That’s Christian discipleship: being willing to follow Jesus, and stay with him, day in and day out, for years and years and years. Staying with him through exciting times and through dry times. Following him when it’s easy and when it’s difficult. Being faithful to him when we feel his presence and also when, for long periods of time, we don’t. “Stay with us”. Don’t be an on-again, off-again Christian. Don’t be one of those who gives up when the going gets tough or when your fellow Christians get too annoying. “Stay with us”.
I can hear echoes of that phrase in the story of Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and his unnamed friend in today’s gospel. The scene is Judea, down by the Jordan river, where John the Baptist was carrying out his ministry of preaching and baptizing. He was announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, and crowds were flocking to him from all over the place. Some of them, no doubt, only stayed for a day or two; they heard John’s message, wanted to be part of his Kingdom of God movement, and so asked for baptism as a sign of their repentance. They were sincere, I’m sure, but they had a lot going on, and they had to get back to their regular lives.
But some stayed, and became ‘disciples’ of John. Yes: John the Baptist, as well as Jesus, had disciples. Lots of people did in the ancient world. It was the standard way of learning – or, I should say, the standard way of experiencing transformation. You didn’t just go to the professor’s classes and take notes on his lectures. You hung around with him. You listened hard to every word that came out of his mouth. If you were lucky, and if he let you, you moved in with him, so that you could watch how he treated his wife and children, how he treated the tradespeople who worked for him, how he dealt with stressful situations. Your goal wasn’t just to learn the things your teacher knew. Your goal was to become like your teacher. That’s what it meant to be a disciple.
Andrew and his friend were disciples of John the Baptist. Perhaps they had been there at the moment when Jesus had been baptized; perhaps they had seen the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, and heard the voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased”. And now, the next day, they were with John when Jesus walked by again, and they heard their master say “Look, here is the Lamb of God” (John 1:36). Watch what happens next:
The two disciples heard (John) say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means ‘Teacher’), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Where are you staying?” That seems like a strange thing to ask, doesn’t it? I’ve been rector of this parish for nearly seventeen years, and I’ve rarely been asked the question, “Where do you live?” People who want my help make an appointment to come see me in my office. People who want to learn more about the Christian life sign up for a course at the church. Very few people feel the need to know my address!
But in the time of Jesus discipleship was all about personal contact. If these two men were going to become disciples of Jesus, they had to know where he was going to be, because they had to be there with him. They needed to be able to stay with him, to watch him, to listen to him, to pay close attention to all that he was doing, so that they could imitate him.
Actually, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is a disciple too. A few chapters later he says to his disciples,
“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing…” (John 5:19-20a).
So Jesus, the human being, also needed to model himself on someone. As God the Son of course, he shared the nature of the Father, but when he accepted the limitations of our humanity and became one of us, he had to grow and learn just like we do. But he had such a close relationship with God the Father – he had learned the secret of listening to him and watching what he was doing – and he modelled his own actions and words on the things he saw and heard from his Father. And now he calls us, in our turn, to come close to him, so we can model our actions and words on the things we see and hear from him.
“Stay with us”. Don’t be in a hurry. Be willing to take time to watch, time to listen, time to absorb what Jesus is doing. In Rowan Williams’ beautiful new book ‘Being Disciples’, he says that this is very much like being a birdwatcher. I’m a bit of a birdwatcher, so this image resonates with me. Listen to what Williams says:
‘I’ve always loved that image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T.S. Eliot… called “the kingfisher’s wing” flashing “light to light” make it all worthwhile. And I think that living in this sort of expectancy – living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind both relaxed and attentive enough to see that when it happens – is basic to discipleship’.
“Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Stay with us”. What does that mean for us today? We can’t ‘stay’ with Jesus in the sense of discovering his address and moving in with him. So how do we ‘stay’ with him? Let me make three suggestions.
First, the most fundamental thing is that we stay with him in prayer. Jesus himself was a person of prayer; that was how he ‘stayed with’ his Father. We’re told in the gospels that it was his regular custom to get up early in the morning, a great while before day, and go out to lonely places so he could pray. On at least one occasion those prayer times lasted all night long; most times, I suspect, they were shorter than that. But he made a habit of it, and we can be sure those times helped make him the person he was – the person who did nothing unless he first saw his Father doing it.
What did he actually do during those times of prayer? We aren’t told very much about it, but if we work from the prayer Jesus gave us as a model, the one we call ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, we can be sure he wasn’t just presenting his daily shopping list to God. The Lord’s Prayer starts by focusing on God’s concerns, not ours: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. A person who begins their prayer like that is a person who has spent a lot of time in silence, listening, watching for ‘the flash of the kingfisher’s wing’ – paying attention to the silence, because they know that’s where they’ll sense the presence of God, and perhaps even hear a quiet word from God in their hearts.
So our prayers need to leave time for this quiet watching and listening. We can’t rush them. My own experience is that this seems to get easier with age. When I was young I seemed to have a lot of things I wanted to say to God. Now that I’m older, I’m more content just to be with God, to be quiet in God’s presence. It’s not that I don’t say anything; far from it! But I do enjoy just sitting in the quiet, or walking in the quiet, trying to pay attention to what’s going on, so that I don’t miss the signs that God is with me, that God has things he wants to communicate to me.
All of us have a lot of demands on our time these days. Many of us have family responsibilities, especially those of us who care for small children. It’s not easy to make time for prayer. It wasn’t easy for Jesus either, living as he did in a world where most houses were small and real privacy was rare. I suspect that Jesus did a lot of praying together, with others; I don’t think he was always trying to escape from them. But he felt the need for that alone time with God, too, and he made it happen. As his disciples, we watch what he does, and we imitate him.
We stay with him in prayer, and we also stay with him in the Scriptures. Jesus, of course, never owned a Bible in his life. Most people in his world didn’t; the printing press was far in the future, and handwritten books were only affordable to the very rich. But Jewish people in the time of Jesus gathered often to hear the scriptures read in public, and they committed large passages to memory; people without access to books tend to have better memories for that kind of thing. And we know that Jesus was familiar with the writings of the prophets and the psalms; they were the story of his people, of course, and he heard God speaking to him through them.
Again, this is something you can’t do in a hurry. Becoming familiar with the story the Bible tells isn’t something you can accomplish in a short time. We need to make Bible reading a habit, something we do regularly, either alone or in the company of someone else. A few years ago our bishop challenged us to read through the Bible in a year using a daily scheme of readings she provided for us, and I know that some of you did that. Those kinds of plans can be helpful, but there’s nothing wrong with reading more slowly, too – savouring every word, using your imagination to put yourself in the story you’re reading, listening for what God might want to say to you in what you read.
So as we think about being disciples of Jesus – of ‘staying’ with him – we need to think about making time for prayer and for reading the scriptures. And the third thing I want to remind you of is this: we stay with him by being with the poor and needy. Jesus meets with us Sunday by Sunday as we gather here to worship God and share the Eucharist, but he spends his working week among the poor and needy. That’s what he tells us in Matthew chapter 25; he reminds us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick or the prisoner, it’s really Jesus we’re serving. He’s present everywhere, but most especially among the poor and marginalized. If we want to meet him – if we want to ‘stay with him’ – then we need to go and look for him there.
I don’t need to give you folks lessons about this; some of you are heavily involved in volunteering with organizations that make a difference in the lives of the poor. But of course, the needs are enormous and there’s always more we could do. Generosity with our money, generosity with our time, a willingness to build real relationships with people, to listen to their stories, to have genuine human contact with people who are often excluded and ignored – that’s all part of ‘staying with’ Jesus by ‘staying with’ the poor – with ‘Christ’s poor’ as they were often known in the Middle Ages.
Let me close by saying this: most of us are here today because we’re hungry for God. We know that Jesus is the one who reveals God to us, and he’s the one who teaches us to know God. So we’ve become his disciples. We’re watching him, listening for his voice, trying to see what he’s doing, so we can imitate him.
“Rabbi, where are you staying?” we ask. Where can we find you, Lord Jesus? In Zeffirelli’s movie, Jesus replies “Stay with us”. As we go into this new year, as we think about growing as disciples, let’s think about these three ways we ‘stay with him’. Let’s ‘stay with him’ by spending time in prayer, listening as well as talking. Let’s ‘stay with him’ by spending time in the scriptures, so that the stories that shaped Jesus can shape us as well. And let’s ‘stay with him’ by spending time with the people who need our help, the poor and needy, the downtrodden and the marginalized.
Jesus is calling us this morning. “Follow me. Stay with me”. How are you going to answer that call this year?
 Rowan Williams, Being Disciples (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2016), p.5.
A few months ago I noticed that there was a new wall mural in my local Starbucks in Century Park. I tend to be kind of focused when I go in there; I’m either working, or Marci and I are having coffee and reading a book together. I notice the people around me, but the other surroundings don’t seem to register. But here I was one day, sitting at my table by the wall, sipping coffee and working on a sermon. At some point I was sitting back in my seat, thinking about what I wanted to say next, and I suddenly noticed that there was a drawing of a man in work clothes and what looked like a sombrero, right beside my seat.
“That’s a pretty cool drawing!” I thought. And so I switched my attention to the wall, and I gradually noticed that it was just one part of a huge mural that covered the whole wall. There were fields and trees, ships and trucks, coffee bags and mugs and a whole bunch of other things. For a moment it was just a confusing mass of images; “What is it?” I thought. And then, suddenly, I caught a glimpse of the big picture. It was a depiction of the whole process of coffee making, from the fields where the beans were grown, to the moment the dark liquid was poured into my mug, with all the steps in between.
“But where’s the beginning?” I asked myself – because, you see, the picture wasn’t in a straight line. It was more like one of those giant snakes in the old ‘Snakes and Ladders’ game, bending around and turning back in on itself until the whole wall was covered – but not in an orderly fashion. It took another minute for me to identify the starting point, and then I could stand back, enjoy the whole picture, and follow the process from start to finish.
I think Christianity can sometimes seem a bit like that wall mural. When we first walk into a church, or when we first encounter Christian faith, it can seem like a confusing mass of ideas and images. Bread and wine, commandments and services, God and Jesus, helping the poor, loving your neighbour and trying to love your enemy, giving to support the church and asking for God’s help when you need it; so many ideas! Or maybe we think of all the stories in the Bible: Noah and his ark, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus on the Cross, Moses crossing the Red Sea with the Israelites and all that. What’s it all about? What’s the plot of the story? What’s the big picture, and what’s the starting point?
There are two things I want to share with you this morning, on this feast day of the Baptism of Jesus. Let me tell you what they are right from the start, and then we can explore them together. First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God. Second, the starting point is baptism.
First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven. To get this big picture we have to go back a few verses from our gospel for today. Matthew chapter three starts with the story of John the Baptist and what he was up to, proclaiming God’s message and baptizing people in the river Jordan. From there we go on to read about Jesus coming down to join John’s movement and being baptized by him, which was our gospel story for today. But at the beginning of chapter three we read these words:
‘In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matthew 3:2).
Let’s be clear that when Matthew uses the language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he’s not talking about ‘dying and going to heaven’. ‘Kingdom of heaven’ is a phrase Matthew uses when Mark and Luke say ‘Kingdom of God’, but all three writers mean exactly the same thing: God’s power coming into this world, to set wrongs right, to fix broken things, to heal wounded things, to end injustice, and to restore all things to the way he originally intended. It wasn’t just about saving souls; it was about fixing a broken world.
Let me give you an example of what Matthew’s Jewish hearers would have thought about when they heard John’s message. Listen to these words from Isaiah:
‘In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths”. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ (Isaiah 2:2-5).
That’s the Kingdom of Heaven: God working in the world, inviting all people to come to him and learn the ways of justice and peace. And the result is the healing of the world.
When I ask people what they think the central message of Jesus was, they often say “Love thy neighbour” – and of course it’s true that Jesus taught us to love one another. But the thing that got him up in the morning, the thing that fired him up and motivated him to keep on with his mission of preaching and healing, was the Kingdom of God. Almost all of his parables are about the Kingdom: it’s like a treasure hidden in a field, he said, or like a tiny seed that you plant in the ground that grows up to be the largest of plants, or like some yeast that a woman took and mixed in with flour until all of it was leavened. The prayer he taught his disciples to pray was “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), and he told us that we should “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Truly, the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, was right at the heart of Jesus’ message.
And right at the heart of the kingdom message was the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation. God comes among us in Jesus, and what do we do? More to the point, what do our best and our brightest do – our political leaders, our priests and religious teachers? They find God a threat to their power – as we all do. Why does God have to interfere so much? Why can’t he mind his own business? And so, like them, we reject him, we mock him, we whip him, we nail him to a cross and we leave him there to die. Maybe then he’ll leave us alone.
Any self-respecting god from the ancient world would have known how to respond to an act like that. Zeus would have scorched the earth with thunderbolts. Thor and Odin would have wiped out their enemies in a river of blood. But what about this God who came to us in Jesus? What does he do? He does exactly what he had taught his disciples to do: love their enemies and pray for those who hate them. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is how reconciliation begins: someone decides not to strike back, but to respond with forgiveness instead. And in Jesus, God decides to be that someone. In Jesus, God reaches out and offers forgiveness to the whole world.
In Matthew 24:14 Jesus calls his message ‘the good news of the kingdom’. It’s good news because it tells us that God has not given up on this world; that God intends to keep on working until the whole world reflects his original vision of justice and compassion and peace. And it’s also good news because everyone is invited, no matter who they are and what they’ve done; everyone can experience this reconciliation with God. You can be forgiven, and you can be welcomed into this movement of nonviolent revolution by which God is at work transforming the whole world. You can know God as your Father and the people of Jesus as your sisters and brothers. No one is left out unless they choose to count themselves out. Everyone is invited to come in.
This is the big picture. Now, how do we come in? What’s the starting point? The starting point is baptism.
But it sometimes seems like such a strange starting point! It seemed strange to John the Baptist that Jesus should ask for it; after all, Jesus was the Messiah, the one John had been talking about:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Imagine how great this person must be! John could take his hearers and plunge them into the Jordan River in the act of baptism, but the one who was coming could do a far greater thing: he could take people and plunge them into the power of God’s Holy Spirit, so that the Holy Spirit would fill them and surround them and empower them to do the will of God. How could someone like that need water baptism from John? ‘“I need to be baptized by you”, he said, “and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”’ – or, as the New Living Translation helpfully puts it, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires” (vv.14-15).
This is counter-intuitive. Surely if we’re looking for the starting point in God’s kingdom, it should be something we do – giving away all our money to the poor, or reading the Bible and praying, or helping someone beside the road who’s been beaten up (like the Good Samaritan did). All these are good things, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing them. But they aren’t the way we start as apprentices, or disciples, of Jesus. Jesus himself said to his followers, “Go therefore and make all nations my disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). In other words, the way you become a disciple is by being baptized; after that, you start learning to put the teaching of Jesus into practice. As Jesus said to Peter at the last supper, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).
Baptism is something God does for us. It isn’t something we do for ourselves. This is symbolized by the fact that in the New Testament no one baptizes themselves. Everyone is baptized by someone else. Baptism is a sign of being washed from sin and evil. It’s a sign of being filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. It’s a sign of adoption into the family of God; as God says after Jesus is baptized, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Notice that he says this before Jesus does any ministry. Jesus has yet to heal a single sick person, preach a single sermon or cast out a single unclean spirit. In other words, this saying comes to Jesus as a gift of the Father’s love. “You’re my boy, and I’m proud of you”.
What a wonderful thing for a child to hear their father say! You and I need to receive that gift too, because words of love like that are a rarity in our world. And most of them are based on achievement: we do a good job, and we get praised for it. But the love of God for us isn’t based on our achievement; it’s based on nothing but his own mercy and grace.
So the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven: God healing the world of evil and sin and restoring it to his original intention. That’s what the work of Jesus is all about. And the starting point for those who want to be a part of that is baptism; it’s how we become disciples of Jesus. Of course, those of us who were baptized as babies have to make our own decision about that, as we get older and come to grasp for ourselves what it is that Jesus is up to. We all have come to the point where our parents’ faith becomes our faith – not something second-hand, but something we experience for ourselves. But it’s still not based on our achievement; it’s based on God’s steadfast love for us.
It needs to be said, of course, that baptism is the starting point – not the ending point! Some people argue against infant baptism because they’ve seen too many cases where it is the ending point: parents bring children to church to be baptized, but then make no effort to continue to be part of the community of followers of Jesus. They don’t teach their kids about the gospel or help them grow a faith of their own. They’ve been baptized, and that’s the end of it.
We’ve already seen that that’s not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus told his disciples not only to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, but then to go on to ‘teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you’. We baptized Christians commit ourselves to a life of discipleship: learning to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives. This is how we ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). And we can’t do this alone. Jesus never called people to follow him alone; he called them to be part of a community of disciples. That’s what the church is meant to be: a community of people learning together how to follow Jesus.
So the big picture is the work of the Kingdom of God in the world, and the starting place for us is baptism. Let me close with a few brief words of further application.
First, many of us Christians need a bigger perspective. We’ve lost our sense of what Christianity is all about. We’ve gotten caught up in little details: whether we should use old hymns or modern worship songs, or whether or not ministers should wear robes, or whether or not women should preside at Holy Communion, or whether churches that don’t have bishops are real churches – none of them subjects on which Jesus seems to have had an opinion. We very much need to remind ourselves of the big picture: The Kingdom of God. And one way of focusing this vision is to ask ourselves: if God were to answer our prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” what would that look like? What would be different in our lives, and in the world around us? When we can imagine an answer to that question, we can then learn to live into it ourselves, and work toward it in the world.
Second, we need to pay attention to the right voices. I suspect that many of you here today have heard negative messages all your life. You’ve been told that you don’t fit in. You’ve been told that you’re the wrong body shape. You’ve been told that your work doesn’t measure up. You’ve been told that you’re a bad person. You’ve been told that it’s your fault, that you’re to blame, that you’re the guilty one. You’ve been told that you’re not important enough for people to care about. And so the list it goes on.
What I want to say is that the most important thing, the thing we should really be paying attention to, is what God says about us. In Jesus’ baptism, God said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). And that’s what he says to you in your baptism as well. I really like the way Mark phrases it in his version of this story: it’s addressed to Jesus in the second person. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).
Imagine the power of hearing God say that to you! If you really believe it – if you believe that’s what God says to you in your baptism – then you can walk out of this building today with your head held high. You won’t need to worry about what other people say about you. You won’t need to define yourselves by other people’s opinions of you. You’ll know, deep down inside, that this is the most fundamental truth about you: you are a child of God, adopted into God’s family, gifted with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. None of this is earned. None of it needs to be earned. It doesn’t come to you as a reward; it comes to you as a gift of God’s grace – not because you are lovable, but because God is love.
When you know that, you can go from this place today in the strength of God’s love, to strive first for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, knowing that nothing in all of heaven and earth can separate you from God’s love. May it be so for you and me, brothers and sisters, today and every day. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.